The trough of a recession might seem an unpropitious time to take the helm of an influential trade association, but you won't hear Michael Mikitka complain. Though he acknowledges that "economics have made membership a more challenging product to sell," Mikitka, who was recently named executive director of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), is quick to point out that a downturn doesn't diminish the need for professional education and training. As long as there are warehouses, managers will want information on how they can refine and improve their processes—and that is precisely what his group intends to provide.
Education is a subject close to Mikitka's heart. He began his career as a technical writer preparing educational materials for the Property Loss Research Bureau, an insurance trade association. He later moved to a job developing programming for the group's annual conference, a job he parlayed into a similar role at WERC, which he joined in 2000.
Mikitka, who graduated from Illinois State University with a B.A. in industrial/organizational psychology, holds the prestigious Certified Association Executive (CAE) and Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designations. He met recently with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to talk about the programs WERC is developing, the group's online initiatives, and why the days of the 500-page book are over.
Q: How would you describe WERC's mission?
A: WERC's mission is to provide resources to the warehousing and distribution industries, whether it's learning opportunities, products, or services. The association has also played a role in raising the profile of warehousing and distribution.
WERC also provides networking opportunities through our events, our committees, and our regional chapters, which extend WERC's reach to the local level.
Q: Could you talk a little about the regional chapters and their activities?
A: Our chapters serve as volunteer-driven extensions of the national organization. The local chapters help us to serve a member who might be working with more limited resources and can't attend the national conference every year. They also allow members to bring their front-line people into association activities, again without the expense of attending the national conference. Our chapters give us the ability to provide learning and enrichment opportunities to larger segments of our members' operational teams through local facility tours, networking events, and speaker presentations.
Q: In the current economic climate, everyone's looking for ideas for cutting costs, streamlining operations, and so forth. Would you say that the role of educationfocused associations like WERC is more important now than it might be in better times?
A: I don't know that I would say more so now. I think that [education support] is what we always provide. That said, our members are certainly like everyone else in business right now in that they're being challenged by the economic environment. So they clearly are looking for more information and ideas to help them not just survive, but perhaps thrive in this downturn. For instance, as business is a bit slower, this is an excellent time to focus on training, and WERC can help with that.
Q: What sorts of programs is WERC currently developing for its members?
A: From an ongoing perspective, there is our annual distribution center metrics and benchmarking study, which we do jointly with DC VELOCITY, Georgia Southern University, and Supply Chain Visions. Having done that for six years, we are now in a position to offer trending information as far as DC metrics go, which I think is valuable and which is something our members have always been looking for.
We're also looking at moving more of our products and resources online, whether through online learning or other programs. We are experimenting with the social networks that are out there—the LinkedIns and the Twitters. We are also always looking to expand our menu of online tools. A good example is our online benchmarking tool. It allows a member company to go in and enter its own DC performance numbers to see how they compare with data from the DC metrics study. So that is giving our members tools and information they need to refine and improve their processes.
Q: It seems most every association is currently facing challenges in maintaining its membership base. How are things trending with WERC?
A: Economics have made membership a more challenging product to sell if you can consider it a stand-alone product. But we are seeing upswings in other areas, like online courses and sales of our publications. Although conference attendance was off a little bit this year, our attendee surveys still show that we deliver a very good product, a very good experience. That's something we remain committed to.
Q: You've now been involved with WERC in some capacity for nine years. What has kept you there for so long?
A: We have a really great membership. I mean, this is a good field. It is a business that has to be responsive, and it expects that same type of responsiveness from an association in terms of the products and services we provide. It is a very realistic group to work with. That is one of the nice things about WERC and our membership and the profession we serve.
Q: How do you stay on top of industry trends and your members' changing information needs? Do you have a formal process for that?
A: We have several ways of gathering that information. We do it through member surveys. We do it through talking with members. We do it through direction from our board of directors regarding trends they are seeing. We also use research that may be presented to us by the educators in our field.
We're also making some changes in the way we present information to members. When we do research, our publications are more targeted than in the past. The days of the 500-page book are over. We're now focusing more on the practical, quick-read type of approach.
The question we ask ourselves when developing products and resources as well as our conference sessions is, What is the takeaway from this particular item? You'll find something to take away from each of our offerings, whether it's a conference session, a facility tour, or an online course. For example, with a conference session, it might be the top five things to look for when choosing a system, or the top three things to avoid when implementing a system.
Q: If you were asked to identify the one industry trend or development that has the greatest potential to benefit the profession going forward, what would it be?
A: Distribution and transportation are closely tied in the supply chain. The transportation infrastructure in the United States is a major opportunity for warehousing, distribution, and logistics in general. As there seems to be a focus in Washington on roads, bridges, and rail, there is the opportunity for cost savings and quicker transit, adding more flexibility to the supply chain.
Q: What advice would you offer to young people looking to pursue a career in the logistics profession?
A: Learn as much about the profession as they can. The best way to do that, I think, is to identify a network of people who can help them learn. That network could be through WERC—either at the local chapter level or the national level. Or it could be through other industry associations. There are certainly other great industry associations out there.
What you don't know in life, good people will teach you. It's a matter of finding the right teachers.